Edmonton

How much does your vote count? Alberta's electoral boundaries under scrutiny

Alberta’s electoral system is under scrutiny as new census data shows several ridings in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer have twice as many people as their rural counterparts. The province’s Electoral Boundaries Commission is tasked with solving the disparity as it tackles the first review of the system since 2009.

'Some Albertans getting twice the voting power in the legislature than others is really hard to defend'

A newly-formed commission will redraw boundary lines to bring each riding within 25 per cent of the average population. (CBC)

Alberta's electoral system is a lopsided democracy with the advantage tilted in favour of rural voters, some political leaders and academics say.

Several ridings in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer have twice as many people as their rural counterparts.

"It makes the votes of rural constituencies matter more than urban constituencies," Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt points out.

The province's Electoral Boundaries Commission is tasked with solving the disparity as it tackles the first review of the system since 2009.

The recently-appointed commission, led by chair Justice Myra Bielby, will look at the population in each constituency, compare it to the average and recommend changes to existing electoral boundaries to bring them closer to the average of 48,884 people per riding.

"The basic underlining democratic principle is that every voter's vote should be relatively as effective as every other voter's vote," Bielby said.  

The most populous riding in Edmonton — Edmonton Southwest — has one MLA representing an estimated 66,489 people. Approximately 450 kilometres northwest, the MLA for Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley represents 25,192 people.
“I really do think that within an urban area, there’s no justification for under-representation," Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson says. (CBC)

The population of Edmonton-Southwest doubled between 2011 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada's latest census released last week, while that of Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley grew by only nine per cent.

The mayor of one of Canada's fastest growing cities believes part of the solution is to give Edmonton another riding, raising the current representation in the legislature from 19 seats to 20.

The more voices you have in the legislature, the happier you are as a community.- Bryce Kumka, Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce president

"I really do think that within an urban area, there's no justification for under-representation," Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson told CBC News.

"Some Albertans getting twice the voting power in the legislature than others is really hard to defend in this day and age."

Thomas Dang, NDP MLA for Edmonton-South West, the city's largest riding, supports an even distribution of population among ridings instead of the large gap that now exists.

"When Albertans vote in a general election, nobody wants to be thinking about, 'Well your vote counts more than mine.' I think it is very important to keep that as close, tight as possible," Dang said. 

Edmonton-South West MLA Thomas Dang represents the most populous riding in Edmonton with an estimated 66,489 people. (Marta Azocar)

Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley MLA, also the Minister of Energy Margaret McCuaig-Boyd, declined to comment on the electoral boundaries review and how it may affect her riding.

The review is timely, with 2016 census data showing the number of people living in the Edmonton area grew by 13.9 per cent since 2011.

"We know that Alberta's population has grown significantly since the last commission was appointed," Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley noted.

"The Electoral Boundaries Commission's work is vital to ensuring Albertans have effective representation – which is a cornerstone of democracy."

No more seats allowed

The commission has rules to follow. Under the current legislation, the number of ridings in Alberta must stay at 87.

"There's nothing wrong with 87," Bielby suggested. "You can't go on just making new constituencies indefinitely. At a certain point, you have to look at other solutions."

The last review in 2009 resulted in four new ridings being created in Alberta -- two in Calgary, one in Edmonton and one in Fort McMurray.

Largest ridings in population
Calgary-South East 79,034
Calgary-McCall 68,523
Edmonton-South West 66,489
Banff-Cochrane 63,990
Calgary-Northern Hills     61,377

Smallest ridings in population
Dunvengan-Central Peace-Notley 25,192  
Fort McMurray-Conklin 29,533
Lesser Slave Lake 30,094
West Yellowhead 36,901
Battle River-Wainwright 36,905

"The last time, they didn't make tough choices," Bratt argued. "They simply decided to add four additional provincial seats instead of really going after the boundary issues, particularly the rural-urban divide."

If Iveson gets his wish for another Edmonton seat in the legislature, the borders of neighbouring ridings would have to be redrawn.

"The whole electoral map is on the table in these reviews and we would encourage the province to shoot for parity across the province, including within the city," Iveson said.

Not just about the numbers

Population may be the review's main focus, but the commission has other factors to consider.

"This isn't simply a mathematical exercise," Bielby pointed out. "If it was, somebody could just sit down with a pencil and paper, divide the population by 87 and start drawing squares on the map until it was all done."

Before redrawing the boundaries, the commission must look at the cultural, social and economic interests of an area.  

She said they don't want to split up communities and areas that have "similar livelihoods, similar cultural backgrounds, similar physical challenges." 

“This isn’t simply a mathematical exercise,” Commission Chair Myra Bielby says of the electoral boundaries review.

That's likely welcome news to Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, whose riding of Fort McMurray-Conklin has a population of 29,533 people, far below the provincial average.

"Population is only one of the factors the law and Supreme Court rulings require them to consider," Jean said. "I have confidence that the commission will be respectful of the geographic challenges in our province as they review boundary maps."

If the commission recommends making rural ridings bigger in geography and population, it will be difficult to avoid political backlash, Bratt speculated.

Traditionally, the Progressive Conservative Party and  Wildrose have more rural seats, while Liberals and NDP have more in the cities.

"This is going to be seen as punishing the Wildrose Party which is stronger in rural Alberta. Even if the commission's math holds up, that's not how it's going to be viewed," Bratt said. "It's going to be viewed as a partisan win by the government."

Redrawing the boundaries

The commission's mandate guides them to set boundaries along natural geographic barriers, such as rivers and mountains and alongside highways, Bielby said.

That's good news for Thomas Dang, who finds the boundaries of his riding a little awkward.

"My riding crosses the river in only two spots and you sort of have to drive weird roads to get around the riding sometimes," Dang said. "That's not ideal for constituents or trying to reach them."

MLAs in rural ridings know the challenges with some towns and hamlets being hours away from the main centre, Bratt acknowledged.

The commission has been holding public hearings to get input from Albertans.

One idea being floated is to redraw the boundary between Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, which has nearly twice the population of its neighbour Fort McMurray-Conklin.

The idea doesn't bother Bryce Kumka, the president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, if the region retains at least two ridings.

"The more voices you have in the legislature, the happier you are as a community," Kumka said. "[There's] more opportunity to be heard."

The commission is holding public hearings the end of February in Calgary, Edson, Slave Lake and Westlock before it writes an interim report in May.

The commission's final report and recommendations are supposed to be submitted to the legislature in October. The final nod on where to redraw Alberta's electoral boundaries will be up to the NDP-led legislature.

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